Sunday, May 29, 2011

Education & Employment: The Missing Link

Public spaces in Kerala are usually dominated by advertisements for jewellery, textiles or real-estate. Under the canopy of these billboards promising the most exclusive ornaments, garments and villas, a new type of poster has been appearing on walls and bus-stands. These are put out by private educational institutions to publicize their success in helping students clear the board-examinations.

Looking at these posters you marvel at the the amount of money people are willing to invest in their children's education, and, at the same time, despair at the futility of their efforts. The serious inadequacies in the Indian education system were highlighted by the Prime Minister himself, way back in 2007 - "(only) Around 10% of our students of the relevant age group is enrolled in any institute of higher education, as compared to 50% in most developed countries...less then 50% of high-school students continue into higher education in any form. Almost two-thirds of our universities and 90% of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters. And, most important, there is a nagging fear that university curriculum is not synchronized with employment needs".

Has anything been done to remove the mismatch between the curriculum and employment needs? Have the teachers stopped advocating rote memorization and the obsession with exam success? 

According to an Oxford academic, many Indians have discovered education at the precise moment at which formal schooling has ceased to be a passport to success. Weaknesses of the education system in India have been identified in numerous studies -   lack of continuous assessment; teachers and students tend to focus on examinations and curricular review tends to be slow. These weaknesses have already translated into serious bottlenecks for the economy - there is already a serious shortage of suitably trained civil engineers; India now relies on tens of thousands of Chinese guest workers to expand its energy infrastructure and the shortage of software professionals is expected to be 3,500,000 by 2020!

Given the number of education institutions that are owned or controlled directly by the politicians, one wonders why they have not yet spotted an opportunity in changing the focus of education from exams to employment. 



* Karl, David J. (2011). EDUCATION IN URGENT NEED FOR OVERHAUL. Hindu BusinessLine16 May 2011.
* Suroor, Hasan (2011). 'EDUCATION IS A NECESSARY BUT NOT A SUFFICIENT BASIS FOR SOCIAL MOBILITY: Interview with Craig Jeffrey, and Oxford academic. Hindu BusinessLine  May 2011
* Kapur, Vikram (2011): A TRAVESTY OF EDUCATION, The Hindu, 25 June 2011 URL -

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Backyard Biology

Some more insect ids from Shaku (previous post - here)

These are insects that abound in the sultry heat that precedes the arrival of the South-West Monsoons in Kerala, India.

A looper-caterpillar pretending to be a broken twig. Loopers mostly belong to family Geometridae and are minor pests of different crops.  They are excellent at camouflage and caterpillars feed on leaves and sometimes fruit or flowers.

 Cucumber beetle (Family Chrysomelidae). Perhaps it it is Aulacophora flavomarginata - Black back cucumber beetle

Cucumber Moth

Oriental fruit fly

Coconut rhinoceros beetle female.  The male has a much more magnificent horn.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ayurveda and the Columbian Exchange

One of the standard textbooks used for training Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala is the "Ashtanga Hrdaya Sutra Sthana" (the essence of eight limbs), written or compiled by Vagbhata, a Karachi-born buddhist savant, in circa 800AD.

This treatise is an elaborate collection of sutra's that cover a wide range of topics that include the specific foods that are to consumed or avoided as a part of the healing regimen ("pathyam"). It includes specific references to the medicinal properties of beef (cow and buffalo - verse 66 & 67, Chapter - Annaswarupa Vijnaniya), despite what some born-again Hindu fanatics of today, may claim to the contrary.

What is interesting, however, is not what has been included in the "Asthanga Hrdaya" or any other classics, so much as what has been excluded. Since the time of Vagabhata, a wide range of new plants and trees have been introduced across the Asian continent. Perhaps the largest such tranche came in the Portuguese and Spanish galleons sailing across the pacific ocean from the "New World" - the Americas.

This exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases, and ideas between the Eastern and Western hemispheres (Old World and New World), was termed as the Columbian Exchange

The Age of Exploration soon brought the European  ships to the shores and trading posts in South India, a process that brought about dramatic changes in local food habits. Today, it seems incredulous to even imagine Andhra cruisine without the green-red chili peppers; or the diet a Keralan without tapioca (cassava), cashew nuts (parangi-andi or Ferenghi/Frank nuts) or peanuts (kappal-andi or "ship nuts"), tomato or potato, not to mention cash-crops like tobacco, coffee, cocoa, vanilla and rubber .

What has been the impact of the Columbian exchange on the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia?  How many sutra's reflect the evolution and change in food habits? or the availability of new medicinal plant or animal extracts?

It would be interesting to know if anybody has attempted to adapt the classic prescriptions of Charaka, Sushruta and Vagbhata, in response to the changing times..

  • Astanga Hrdaya of Vagbhata, 3 Vols. (K.R. Srikantha Murthy (Tr.), 2008) -
  • History of Ayurveda -

Ants in Kerala

I never cease to wonder at the amazing diversity of life in the tropics. Even the smallest patches of land seem to be home to so many different types of plants, insects, reptiles and birds!

The question for the day is this: How many different species of ants can there be in a 11 "cent"* plot in Trivandrum, Kerala?

A few years ago, I would have been content to divide ants into two broad categories - the ones that bite and those that didn't. That was, of course, before the age of WWW and online databases. But even now, the material available in these databases seem to have a limited coverage of the Indian subcontinent - let alone separate eco-zones and sub-zones within countries.

This dilemma was solved recently when a biologist friend handed me just the sort of book I was looking for - "On a Trail With Ants - A Handbook of the Ants of Peninsular India", a self-published book by Ajay Narendra and Sunil Kumar M.

Here is a list of local ant species that have been identified so far -
NOTE: Three broad parts to an ant – head, mesoma, and gaster. The head portion contains the antennae (funiculus), eyes and teeth (mandibles); the legs are attached to mesoma ( middle) segments and the gaster is bulbous portion at the rear and sometimes bears a sting.

1. Weaver Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina)

Weaver-ant soldiers keep a sharp eye on the males (black, winged), preventing them from flying away until the time is just right. Featured in National Geographic of May 2011.

2. Miniscule House Ant (Tetramorium smithi): Subfamily Myrmicinae.: Tiny (2mm) red-ants with a sharp bite

3. Golden Backed Ant (Camponotus sericeus): Lone foragers with workers in different sizes (polymorphic), ranging from 10mm to 4mm

4. Odor Ant (Tapimoma melanocephalum): Sub-family: Dolichoderinae: The most commonly seen ants indoors - its everywhere – clothes, curtains and even laptops! Seems to have supplanted the MHA a few years ago. 1.5 -2mm length; distinct pale yellowish gaster; long antennae

5. Pharaoh Ant (Monomorium pharaonis) : Subfamily Myrmicinae [Note: Id. to be confirmed]. Workers in sizes ranging from deep maroon head and gaster with reddish. Location: Outdoors – around the potted plants.
Pharaoh Ant - assorted sizes on a garden wall

6. Giant Honey Ant (Camponotus irritans)[Note: Id. to be confirmed] <>  Fast moving solitary hunter. Location: Indoors – mainly in the ground-floor bathrooms.

7. White-footed Ghost Ant (Technomyrmex albipes) Subfamily: Dolichoderinae: Shiny black ant 2.5-3mm long, with an oval,  pointy gaster. Recently hopped across from the banana fronds touching my  window to look for food in my dust bin. Location: Outdoors on banana fronds; indoors in the window sill. This ant figures in the PCI list of common Indian pests.
White-footed Ghost Ant

8. Yellow Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes) Sub-family: Formicinae: Red transluscent ants, 6.5-7mm long with large gasters. Invasive species, indicates human disturbance in habitat.  <> Location: Indoors and outdoors.

9. Common Godzilla Ant (Camponotus compressus) Subfamily Formicinae: Black, opaque ant having workers in at least three different sizes ranging from 16mm to 8mm. Forage in small groups. Location: Exclusively outdoors.

10. Black Crazy Ant (Paratrechina longicornis) Subfamily Formicinae: About 3.5mm in length this ant’s main characteristic is its long, slender antenna. Location: Mainly indoors.

11. Greater Trap-Jaw Ant (Ondontomachus haematodus): About 15mm long this ant forages solitarily with its mandibles wide open. Location: only in the front-yard.

12. Finned Dolly Ant (Dolichodorus affinis) - Always a loner, this ant was spotted atop a banana tree. About 4mm in size, it is distinctly different with its deep, shiny maroon body - the gaster glints like a jewel in sunlight!

13. Common Red Fire Ant (Solenopsis geminata: Large nests on the steps leading to Parai Kovil, marked by heaps of powdery red soil particles.

14. Arched Two-spined Ant (Polyarchis halidayi)   [Note: Id. to be confirmed]: Atop a sapota-tree, hangs a nest made out of a single folded leaf walled with mud and larval silk. Home to about 20 ants. When disturbed the ants rush out and arch themselves into a defensive position, exposing the underside of their gasters which have a distinct black, metallic silver color.

14. Unidentified...which one is this??

*Note: 1 "Cent" =  40.5 sq m

Excerpt from NatGeo  article of May 2011:
Scientists have likened weaver ant communication to a type of language with primitive syntax,. Mathematicians draw upon analysis of ant behavior to devise parallel computing formulas (where multiple problems are solved simultaneously). Ants serve as models of all kinds of studies aimed at figuring out how big, complex jobs get done with small parts and minimum instructions.


Friday, May 06, 2011

India's Railways & Competition

Will the involvement of the private sector make India's railway services more efficient and cost effective?

Given the level of efficiency and sophistication achieved by the railway sector in countries like Japan, it is perhaps fair to note that the Indian Railways has a long-long way to go. In Japan,  the railway industry is bristling with competition among private players who - especially after 1987 - have steadily moved beyond manufacturing of locomotives and rolling stock into operating most of the urban networks.

In India, even manufacturing of rolling stock continues to remain the exclusive forte of public sector companies. Unlike in telecom or roadways, the level of involvement of private players in railways continues to be blocked by successive governments. Recent statements by Mamata Banerjee make it clear that IR will only tolerate private sector encroachment into their "non-core" services such as catering and land development. Perhaps the only exception here is the token presence of private players in freight transport.

According to Frederic Jenny, Economist turned Judge and Chairman of the Committee on Competition Law and Policy, OECD Paris, there are two reasons why governments keep sectors like the Railways a government monopoly: First, a developed communication network generates positive externalities, and, second, competition in setting up railway infrastructure would be wasteful. Having supported government intervention, he goes on to say that provision of competition in railway services, for example competition in operation of freight or passenger trains, can be quite useful to improve the quality of the service and lower its cost.

The benefits of competition, however, continues to elude the railways. In the latest policy document, "Railway 2020", plans for privatization of selected railway services have been either slowed down. Recommendations of the Rakesh Mohan Panel (2001), prescribing a drastic overhaul of the Indian Railways, continues to be mothballed...


* S., Arun (2011). 'Competition laws bring economic democracy' - Interview with Frederic Jenny, Economist turned Judge, Chairman of the Committee on Competition Law and Policy, OECD Paris. 3 May 2011
* Why Indian Railways Must be Privatized (The Broad Mind, Takshashila, 25 Mar 2011) -
* Railways runs on privatization track (ToI, 30 Dec., 2005) -
* IFC- Financing PPP in Indian Railways -,%20IR,%20WORLD%20BANK/26.03.09/Vipul.pdf
* Rakesh Mohan Panel Moots TRAI-like Panel for Railways -
* GoI Position Paper - PPP in  Railways -
* PPP is not Privatization - Expert (Zee News, 12 Jul 2009) -